Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mutt's Top Ten Film Conclusions

For a bookend piece, see my June 20, 2008 post, "Mutt's Top Ten Film Openings".

In discussing films as we often do, Duke and I sometimes talk about those rare movies that have a striking conclusion, the kind that makes you shake your head in wonder, cementing the fact in your mind that you have just seen a superior film. For me, as in great books, there is nothing quite as exhilirating as an excellent ending to a film or novel, especially when the whole rest of the story preceding it has been executed just as well. One gets the feeling that the director, in the case of films, has successfully carried their vision through all the way to the end, and completed their work in the most convincing and satisfying manner. There aren’t very many films that have given me this sensation, the thrill of having seen a genuine work of art, but the ones that do have always stayed with me. And so, in this season of lists, I present the selections for my own Top Ten Film Conclusions. Feel free to join the debate or add your own choices for consideration….

Pan’s Labyrinth, director Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro, one of the most interesting and imaginative creative minds working in film today, begins the conclusion to his triumphant 2006 film with the murder of an innocent child. This dreadful event is followed soon thereafter by an absolutely gorgeous, color-infused scene unlike any other in the film, in which the young female protagonist, clad in a stunning red satin gown, appears in a cathedral-like hall in front of a trinity of huge thrones and the figure of the immortal ‘faun’ from the film walking among them – a kind of visual passage into the afterlife, and an incredible sensory flourish worthy of the rest of this great film. Then, in the final shots, a stirring voice-over informs the viewer that the story has come to a conclusion, but that one can still find traces of the young girl’s incredible journey in our world ‘if you know where to look’, spoken over a succession of lovely shots of certain backdrops from the film, and concluding finally with a small scrap of a girl’s dress caught on a branch, fluttering in the breeze, deep in a thick forest.

Dreams, director Akira Kurosawa
The legendary Japanese film director’s utterly unique Dreams is unlike almost any other film you can imagine – a kind of visual short-story collection, consisting of ten small films based on dream fragments from the director’s own subconscious. The dreams all vary in style and substance, but each one is almost more visually stunning than the previous; also, they grow more and more ominous and apocalyptic as they progress. That is, until the beautiful and moving final ‘dream’, which is totally opposite in tone and setting. Titled “Village of the Watermills”, the final sequence depicts small, quiet moments that contrast sharply with the harrowing images from the dreams before it. The dream as well as the film ends with a long, silent shot of thin, slender blades of grass billowing just under the glimmering surface of a gently rolling stream awash in blazing sunlight. All one can hear is rolling water. There are no words, no other sounds. One of my favorite things about this lovely and moving final shot is how it holds for an unusually long time before the end credits roll, deliberately lingering over the beautiful simplicity of natural life. (Incidentally, Dreams is the only film to make BOTH my Film Openings and Film Conclusions list.)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?, director Joel Coen
In my opinion the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, are unmatched among filmmakers working today. (That is why they appear more than once on this list.) They are outstanding writers, editors, and directors, and they never do the same thing twice, nor do they pay much heed to the audience’s expectations. This brilliant and hilarious re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey in the Depression-era South is one of their crown jewels, and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. For me, the final shot of this film is best appreciated in context, as a lovely capper to all that has come before it. In the scene, Holly Hunter and George Clooney, in character, are discussing their recently renewed plans to get married as they walk along towards a set of railroad tracks while Clooney’s co-horts in all the madcap action from the preceding story lag behind. The camera follows the group from the side as they approach the tracks, then begins to ascend slowly into the sky as they cross over the tracks. On the railroad tracks, an old black man can be seen inching forward towards the horizon on a hand-pumped rail car; the same man appears at the very beginning of the film as a kind of soothsayer. He heads off towards a brilliant gold-colored horizon as the camera lofts ever higher and the screen fades. The combination of the extraordinary photographer Roger Deakins’ beautiful, valedictory shot and the beautiful colors and various small-town sounds makes this final image a stunning conclusion to a great film.

Millions, director Danny Boyle
This excellent film about a young child in Ireland who comes upon a misplaced stash of criminal money, and his adventures with his brother to prevent people from finding out about it, is a funny, endearing and sometimes sad story that earns a genuine emotional response. The key to the movie is that it is told from a child’s point of view, and contains many imaginative scenes where we see things that children might see in their own imaginations, but that adults often miss. Nowhere is this more effective than the final sequence, in which the young boy narrating the film says that while others might end the story sooner, it’s his story, and what we assume is the end of the film is not the way he wants it to end. From there, the action transports, quite magically, to a village in Africa, where the boy and his family assist a group of poverty-stricken children in setting up a pump for clean water, which begins to spring forth. The installation of this life-giving spring represents a salvific, cleansing miracle for the villagers, and makes for a very touching and beautiful conclusion to a lovely, family-friendly, inspiring film. Note the gorgeous, celebratory African music that accompanies the scene.

8 Mile, director Curtis Hanson
This may seem like an odd choice, because the rest of the film is nowhere near the other films on this list in terms of overall quality, but for me the conclusion expresses the timeworn theme of striking out for oneself against all imaginable odds in a stirring and fresh manner. The proverbial tale about the kid from the rough part of town that rises above his origins, as depicted endlessly in other films such as Rocky, etc., is here given a beat-saturated urban spin. The film stars the famed white rapper Eminem as “B Rabbit”, in a role that has many autobiographical similarities to his own life, and although it’s not clear that Eminem will ever be a great actor, here he channels his well-known verbal energy and pent-up angst to enormous effect, pounding against any instinct the viewer may have to dislike him. The last twenty minutes of the film present B Rabbit’s triumphant victory in three successive freestyle rap contests against successive black male rappers, all of whom have been ‘dissing’ him and his friends in increasingly hostile ways throughout the narrative. Physically beaten, financially destitute, and having been betrayed by his girlfriend, B Rabbit stands up for himself in a fury of funny and stunningly inventive verbal bursts, positively bristling with angst and rage, and emerges victorious. He then walks quietly through the Detroit urban landscape to complete his overnight shift at a metal factory. No matter what you think of rap music, Eminem’s fierce performance here is inspiring. Notably, he also won an Academy Award for the song “Lose Yourself” from the film’s soundtrack.

Fargo, director Joel Coen
The Coen’s darkly hilarious film about a desperate man’s ill-considered plot to have his wife kidnapped so he can collect the ransom money is well-known and often quoted. Most people know about the climactic scene that involves Frances McDormand (in an Oscar-winning performance), a criminal, and a wood-chipper – one of the most memorable sequences in modern film history. This is followed by a wonderful monologue in a police cruiser, in which the simple, good-hearted, and very pregnant police chief, played by McDormand, lectures a hardened murderer on his seemingly random acts of violence and wonders aloud why anyone would behave this way. Both of these sequences are beautifully acted and memorable, and most filmmakers, having inserted those lines into their characters’ mouth in the police car, would end the picture there. But the Coens, as I alluded to previously, like debunking expectations, so their film ends with the police chief in bed with her husband at night, praising him for his accomplishment of having one of his watercolor paintings accepted for use on a 3-cent stamp. And in a lovely reflective moment, the woman says, “You know, we’re doing pretty good”, and they switch off the light and go to sleep, awaiting the moment when they become a family.

Blood Simple, director Joel Coen
The third Coen film to make this list has probably one of my favorite concluding lines of any film script I’ve come across. Blood Simple, the Coen brothers’ first feature, was a noir-ish tale set in rural Texas in which a honky-tonk owner named Marty, realizing his wife is having an affair, hires a hitman to kill them both. The film is filled with wonderful performances and skilfully crafted moments of tension, as well as a deep vein of black humor running throughout. All of these things come together in the highly memorable final sequence in which the wife, played again by Frances McDormand (a.k.a. Mrs. Joel Coen), defends herself against the hitman – while separated from him by walls. As the hitman draws closer, McDormand’s character, who is convinced it’s Marty stalking her, and doesn’t know there is any hitman involved, fatally shoots him through a doorway. She then says, “I’m not afraid of you, Marty” and the hitman, bleeding on the floor, manages a laugh and says, “Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.” End of film.

The Blair Witch Project, directors Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
Perhaps this film didn’t age entirely gracefully, but many will remember that at the time it came out in 1999, it was a phenomenon, and scared many viewers silly, including yours truly. The film was shot over 8 days for $22,000 and ended up making over $250 million worldwide. Blair Witch was an entertaining and inventive horror story about a group of college kids, two guys and a girl, who go into the woods together to hunt out the truth about a local legend about people being murdered in the Maryland forest by a “witch”. They go to the woods with hand-held cameras and a brazen attitude and are never seen again – the only thing that is recovered are their cameras with documentary-style footage, and this makes up the film itself. During the film, a legend is related about how when the “witch” takes its victims, it makes them stand in the corner with their back turned before it kills them. As the film progresses, the kids are spooked in increasingly portentuous ways by unexplained sounds, voices, and strange stick figures in the woods. When one of their group disappears without a trace overnight, the other two set out to find him. Eventually they follow his screams to an abandoned ruin of a house. Once inside, they become confused and disoriented. One of them screams and drops his camera, and when the other runs into the room with her camera, she finds him standing in the corner, and screams herself. Then her camera is knocked down, and everything goes black. When I saw this in the movie theater in 1999, knowing nothing about the story, it scared the living daylights out of me.

Casino Royale, director Martin Campbell
At the time when this film was released in 2006, I and possibly many other people could have cared less about the James Bond film franchise. These films had been around forever and had become increasingly tired, and in the age of Jason Bourne and other action movies of this millennium, they seemed outdated and trivial. But this tremendously entertaining film completely defied expectations, and is probably the best Bond film of all of them. It began with the gutsy casting of the little-known Daniel Craig in the lead role, replacing a suave but rather blasé Pierce Brosnan. Craig brought a whole new element of pathos and physicality to the role, and his fierce, explosive performance carried the film. Since the film’s conceit was to go back to the beginning and tell the story of Bond’s first mission as a “007” agent in the British Secret Service, in keeping with the fact that Casino Royale was the first Bond novel Sir Ian Fleming ever wrote, Craig was able to bring a youthful recklessness to the role, something he does in brilliant fashion. The entire film is fast-paced, well-acted, and thrilling, but the ingeniuous idea of concluding the film with Bond’s most famous line was the kicker. At the very end, Bond arranges to meet a man who represents his enemies, and when the man shows up aside a coastal hotel in Europe, he steps out of his car into brilliant sunlight – and is immediately shot in the leg. As he gropes towards cover, Bond’s foot is seen stepping up beside him. ‘Who….are…you?’ the man asks. The camera shows Bond as seen from the man’s point of view below, and Craig says, ‘Bond. James Bond.’ The movie ends.

The Grapes of Wrath, director John Ford
John Steinbeck’s classic novel is famously brought to the screen in director John Ford’s Oscar-winning 1940 film. This film is famous for many reasons, including the legendary Ford’s direction, Henry Fonda’s brilliant performance as Tom Joad, and the famous speech in which Tom Joad, leaving his family forever, tells his mother in response to her asking how she will know if he’s all right, “I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there.” But the singular moment from the film as opposed to the book may be the concluding speech, delivered by the actress Jane Darwell, who portrayed Ma Joad, at the very end of the film. This speech, which wasn’t even in the novel, earned Darwell a Supporting Actress Oscar. As the Joad family drives away at the end of the film, without their eldest son, to find work and simply survive, Ma Joad says, “Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people.”

Monday, December 22, 2008


2008 is hurtling rapidly towards the finish line, and so it's time once again to look back on the year of reading that was and select ten books that had the most impact on me over that time.

As the subtle variation in the names of our posts implies ("10 best" vs. "notable books"), my list is a little bit different than Mutt's, in that I don't attempt to put them in any kind of order... although if I did, I will say right now that there would be a tie for the top slot: between Denis Johnson's short story collection Jesus' Son, and Flann O'Brien's speculative mind-bender novel The Third Policeman. See below for more on both.

It's a strange coincidence that both Mutt and I would single out a book from the same author - a first as far as I know, in about 5 years of trading lists like this - but it certainly seems appropriate in both of our cases.

Anyway, no more preamble... here's my list for the year. And stay tuned to this channel for my bonus list, Noteworthy Films I Saw in 2008, coming soon...


Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson – This is not only the best story collection I read in 2008, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read. These interconnected stories featuring a drug-addled lost soul wandering from calamity to calamity across America’s bleak, modern landscape reminded me of the great Flannery O’Connor in the way they evoke a profound spiritual yearning within a context of violence, confusion and mystery. The great alchemy of Johnson’s prose is that he is able to create a unique, lyrical language out of material that is as painful as it is profane.

The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett – My first exposure to this pioneer writer of so-called noir fiction was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year. The tight plotting, double-crossing and mysterious women are all there, but it’s Hammett’s lightning-fast, darkly humorous, intelligent dialogue that makes him required reading. An undeniable influence on the Coen Brothers!

The Reason for God, Timothy Keller – Keller’s attempt at a modern-day Mere Christianity succeeds for the most part, and is a valuable resource in terms of presenting clear-headed, insightful arguments for the existence of God. A solid answer to the recent spate of bestselling rants against religion and an engaging read as well, The Reason for God ought to be read widely by Christians as well as skeptics who are open to considering a sensible argument for belief.

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O’TooleClick here to read my thoughts on this great comic novel, posted earlier this year on The Secret Thread.

A New Selected Poems, Galway Kinnell – I like to try and include at least one poet on my list each year, and no other collection I’ve read in 2008 (excluding those I read from perennially, such as those from R. S. Thomas, Charles Simic and Walt Whitman) gave me as much pleasure and insight as Kinnell’s. His poems tend to focus on those places where the miraculous, mysterious and mundane intersect: the family, the natural world and the treasure vault of memory. For samples of the great stuff included in this collection, check out this earlier “Poem of the Week” post.

The Family of Pascual Duarte, Camilo Jose Cela – Like Camus’ The Stranger and Hugo’s novella The Last Day of a Condemned Man, this neglected classic by the Nobel Prize winning Spanish novelist features a man on death row looking back on the events of his life that brought him to the brink of execution. This novel is a gripping examination of evil, and whether a man can be saved (or not) from his own darkest impulses. It is also noteworthy (in my mind anyway) for how seriously it deals with questions of faith, God, sin and free will.

The Known World, Edward P. Jones – This novel took a long time to grow on me, but the farther along I read in it the more I appreciated its originality and imagination – and it’s lingered in my mind for a long time after I finished it. Jones’ extraordinary examination of a reality more or less obscured by history – the keeping of slaves by black landowners in 19th century Virginia – is in fact a profound and moving meditation on the promise, and problems, of African-American community life.

The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien – Whoo boy... where to begin? This was by far the strangest, and most memorable, novel I read this year. In fact, I’ve never read anything quite like it. A brilliant hybrid of speculative science fiction and nightmarish vision of the afterlife, all set in rural Ireland (where else?!?)… Who is the mysterious “third policeman”? Why are most of the characters obsessed with bicycles? What exactly is happening within that underground chamber, and what the hell is this magical material called omnium? And why does the whole story seem to be set on an infinite loop? Naturally I can’t shed light on ANY of these questions, even after having read it – but trust me, this book is one weird and wild ride.

The Histories, Herodotus – Who says ancient history is boring?? If you’ve ever had any interest in travel narratives, Herodotus’ Histories is both the Granddaddy and the Holy Grail of the genre. I fully admit that I only read half of this weighty tome this year (which makes it a bit of a cheat, but I include it anyway because it was so unlike anything else I read), but that half was crammed with so many fascinating details about the cultures, religions, wars, politics and technologies of the ancient world that I felt it was well worth the careful attention it required.

Night Flight, Antoine de Saint Exupery – For sheer originality in subject matter, nothing (other than The Third Policeman) I read this year beat this beautifully written novella from the world-famous author of the classic children’s fable The Little Prince. This fictional chronicle of the pilots and mechanics who delivered air mail to and from South America in the early days of aviation (around 1920!) is both a gripping adventure yarn, and a fascinating philosophical/spiritual meditation on the human spirit. Saint Exupery’s descriptions of flying in the middle of snowstorms over the Andes were some of the most stunning passages I read in 2008.

Honorable mentions: The Collected Plays of Karol Wojtyla; If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, William Faulkner; My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, Samuel Chamberlain; Blood Meridian (re-read), Cormac McCarthy; The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2008

'Tis the season for annual Top Ten lists of the best books of the year, and here at The Secret Thread this is also our tradition. (Duke's list will follow later, stay tuned.) I read a ton of great books this year, but these were the ones that impacted me the most. Without much more introduction, I present them here, in order of merit, and with a one-sentence commentary for the second year running. (Be glad, my lists before then ran much longer!!)

Note: I'd like to give a shout out to my big sister, Maria Therese Hey, who gave me not one but TWO books featured on this list as gifts. Does she know her brother or what?? These books, should anyone care, are marked with an asterisk*.

10. Night Shift, Stephen King. This collection of early Stephen King stories contains some real howlers, but it is still a rollicking entertainment and a bravura creative display that demonstrates the power of a fearless imagination.

9. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, V.S. Pritchett. An elegant, efficient biography of the master of the modern short story by the great Pritchett, himself a towering figure in 20th century English letters, who possessed the skills and experience to do this great subject justice.

8. The Keep, Jennifer Egan. A fresh voice for me, Egan’s absorbing and intelligently structured novel is part homage to the great Gothic tradition, part compelling commentary on the alienation of modern man by technology, and part post-modernist exhibition of stories-within-stories – an elaborate creation, skillfully executed.

7. Exiles, Ron Hansen. The spiritual struggles of the under-lauded but influential poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the harrowing sea tragedy that inspired his masterpiece are here dramatized in a graceful, moving novel that only Ron Hansen could have written.

6. Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI.* This mature, illuminating study by the current Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is filled with the insights and wisdom of a serious religious thinker’s lifelong pursuit of the meaning of the Incarnation, without a trace of condescension or scholarly bluster.

5. On Beauty, Zadie Smith.* The only novelist to make my list two years running, Smith’s fascinating and funny third novel, widely praised by critics, dares to re-imagine Forster’s Howard’s End through two modern families and their inter-connecting stories in a New England college community.

4. Man in the Dark, Paul Auster. With trademark precision and grace, this dark, stirring fable concerning a damaged old man and the youthful assassin he conjures up in his troubled imagination is a striking performance even by Paul Auster’s lofty standards, and is one of the best novels in his long and satisfying career.

3. Say You’re One of Them, Uwem Akpan, S.J. Not for the faint of heart, this collection of stories about modern Africa by Akpan, a Nigerian and a Jesuit priest, is filled with startling violence and tragedy, almost unbearably depicted with efficient prose and vivid dialogue – and made all the more harrowing by the fact that the stories’ narrators are young children.

2. An Imaginary Life, David Malouf. One of the most beautifully written novels I’ve read in years, this utterly original tale is based on the few known facts about the ancient Roman poet Ovid, exiled to a small island by the emperor, where he befriends a child raised by animals and attempts to take him on as his own.

1. Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson. Here is a novel I am not even sure I fully understood, yet cannot forget – a massive, fascinating, heartbreaking epic set primarily in Vietnam between 1963 and 1983; a story that attempts to contain and illuminate the great tragedy of that war within the context of an unsettling portrayal of United States intelligence operatives; a brave, unbearably sad discourse on American power and the consequences of its flagrant abuse; and a moving, passionate commentary on modern man’s search for meaning and truth.

2007 List:
10. The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan.
9. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meg Meeker, M.D.
8. Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar.
7. The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andric.
6. White Teeth, Zadie Smith.
5. Freddy’s Book, John Gardner.
4. Forty Stories, Anton Chekhov.
3. Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard.
2. What is the Point of Being a Christian?, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.
1. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

'Suicide Station', Conclusion

[To read Part 1, "The Dead Ravine," go here.]

[To read Part 2, "Helen," go here.]

[To read Part 3, "Bad gods,"
go here.]

4. Lazarus
When I woke up things were different. Helen was different, to put it more accurately.

You’re awake. Good. Time to go, she said. But her voice sounded much colder, more distant.

I struggled to sit up. Did I sleep too long? I’m sorry. I—

No. But still, it’s time to go, she said. I realized she was literally standing over me. I looked up towards her but it was still dark. Very dark, in fact. She carried the portfolio. It was obvious she wanted to move.

What about you? Don’t you need rest?

It doesn’t matter now. We have to get going. Up the tower, she answered.

Something about her tone seemed to eliminate any possibility of an argument, so I struggled painfully to my feet. My back hurt; my knees cracked so loudly I thought they were breaking. The report almost sounded like gunshots. The wind was blowing very coldly again; I shivered violently. I bent over and plucked my wallet from the ground. Helen eyed me in silence.

Are you all right? Did something happen? I tried.

The gods are closer. It’s best if we climb the tower. Now.

But I didn’t hear any gods. And the storm? I asked.

It’s coming, she said. She was looking at me, but I couldn’t see her face.

Helen, I .. I didn’t mean to … you should have woken me up.

That’s not it, she said. She turned and started up the stairs.

The ascent was treacherous and cold. My legs hurt, I was almost freezing, and the increasing height and narrow steps were giving me a kind of vertigo. Helen took the stairs step by step, tirelessly, automatically. She didn’t say a single word as we went up. Nor did I. The climb didn’t lend itself to conversation, since we were filing up one in front of another. But I couldn’t help but think that even if we were side by side, she would still be silent. She had seemed much more amiable before I slept, and I took that to mean she was excited to cross over and go find her son. But that was assuming she even knew how to cross us over. Maybe she was having doubts about how to do it. Maybe she couldn’t remember. Maybe she was finally just worn out and beaten. Or, perhaps, maybe she was thinking about what sort of toll it could take on her to reunite with her only son in the Construct and then have the hurricane hit. She might be wondering now if it was better not to find him again.

I had no idea, really, but between her and my own addled state of fatigue and discomfort, I really didn’t know what to think. I felt pretty miserable. How the hell did I get here, into this totally bizarre conundrum to begin with? For this, it seemed to me there would never be an answer.

We continued our ascent. I was wondering about how much time might have passed while I slept, and what could have happened to change Helen’s demeanor, if not an attack or the signs of the hurricane. But all I could come up with was what I had thought of before – maybe she had just had time to think about things and realized there would be no favorable outcome. I didn’t know. On the subject of passed time, I discovered that there was a line of gray light on the far horizon – to the east? – and that it was dawn again. This meant one of two things: the nights here were very short, or Helen had had the watch for a long time. I felt guilty. But up we went.

It was a frightening climb, especially towards the end. I don’t know how long it took. Perhaps a half hour, maybe longer. A few times I got very dizzy and almost toppled off. Helen continued to drag herself up. It wasn’t hard to understand why she might have wanted to get up quickly, however – assuming she still desired to cross over. I did my best to keep up, but it wasn’t easy.

By the time we reached the top of the tower, a weird, silvery gray light was spreading out all across the earth, or the surface, or whatever you might call this misbegotten place. There was even a kind of metallic taste to the air up there. It seemed both odd and ominous, and by some deeply laid instinct, I took this as a pre-cursor to the storm.

At the top there was not much to see, save for an elevated platform, I guess you might call it, in the center of the apex, and a broad view of the nothingness in all directions. The platform structure sat at about shoulder height and was set back from the edge of the tower at perhaps ten feet on all sides. If you wanted to you could have climbed on top of it, but I don’t know what the point of that would have been. Unless it had something to do with the function of the waystation – maybe it was from atop this supplementary apex that one actually crossed.

Speaking of crossing, I figured Helen would want to get started. She had wandered off ahead of me, the fingertips of her left hand brushing lightly against the stone wall of the platform, her eyes turned towards the far horizon from which the light bled forth like something spilled in the sky.

Then, abruptly, she turned to me. Will you hold this, please, said Helen, like a statement. She extended the portfolio.

Sure, I said. I took it.

Without another word, and with no other gesture whatsoever, Helen turned away from me, strode to the edge of the tower, and stepped off.

I almost passed out from shock. I choked on the metal blades in the air. Suddenly I was stumbling forward. Over the edge of the tower I could see her falling, her dress flapping behind her like some singular white wing on a mutated angel. Her form blew or was carried forward a short distance, as though she was indeed flying. I fell to my knees, averted my eyes, and managed to avoid seeing her slam into the dead ground.

The next thing I remember is being there on the lip of the tower, coughing and drooling. Below, Helen lay face down on the shattered floor. It looked almost as if it had been an earth-colored pane of glass, and the impact of Helen had smashed it into pieces. She was small from where I was positioned, but I could still observe something else, something that seemed wrong. A kind of pale white tube led from beneath her corpse and trailed away from her body for several feet. Her flesh had burst. The tail end of the strand fluttered loosely in the gale.

I bellowed into the wind. Over and over again. The wind treated my cries the same way it did those of the bad gods. It ushered them off hungrily into the void.

That was some time ago. An hour. Two hours. I don’t know. I am now sitting again at the base of the tower. Why I came back down I am not sure. For I know now that I will have to climb this hellish station once again.

The greatest shock I have ever known did not destroy me. It felt like it surely would, but it didn’t. I am not speaking of Helen’s suicide. I am speaking of the discovery I made when I got back down here.

While I write these words, a very odd thought occurs to me. You must forgive me, for my mind is no longer stable. But it seems to me that the notion of suicide shares an affinity with the notion of God, in the following sense. In the case of both suicide and God, once you determine that either of them is possible, they are in one sense actual. They say that if you decide to search for God, you’ve found him already. In the same way, strangely, once you decide suicide is on the table, you have probably already committed it with the most vital part of yourself.

I got down here somehow, and when I did, not knowing what else to do, I opened up the portfolio, with the idea of putting down these words. And it was there, on the first page, that I saw this.

Now I understand who you are.

The thought hadn’t occurred to me until the moment you said my discovery of this folder was funny. It was the way you said it. I once knew another man who also had an ironic sense of humor. You and I even shared a few moments of irony ourselves in the small time we were together. That is something, I suppose.

If you haven’t guessed who I am, and it doesn’t strike me that you had, see the photograph tucked behind the brass plate. While you were sleeping I took the liberty of looking in your wallet, just to confirm things. But by then I knew. It is just one of life’s coincidences that I found the identifying object that I did in your possession, even here.

Isn’t it odd that I never asked you what your name was and you never offered it? If you’re wondering what your real name is, it is Lazarus. More irony. Your father and I somehow thought we might deliver you from early death. We were young ourselves.

One more thing. If it strikes you as terrible that I have done what I am about to do, this soon after we have found one another, that’s because it is. It is not just terrible, it is selfish. I don’t deny this. I do love you – I loved you enough to stay alive until this final sorrow. But, you see, you are not from the Construct. Believe me, I know. Therefore we are – you are – stuck here. We cannot cross over. And I can’t go through another moment here. Even with you, I can’t. If that means my fear of what will happen very soon overpowers my love for you, so be it. I am, in the end, weak.

That storm will literally rend you head to toe, Lazarus. Make no mistake. Your suffering will be unimaginable. I am sorry to write this down, but I don’t like to tell lies. Do what you must.


P.S. Of course, it was I who summoned you. I just didn’t know it. The Summons Ritual is very old, and few people are left here who can still speak of it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just make a person appear before you. Once summoned, you have to find them. I tried it several times, not knowing what I was doing. But it explains why we ran into each other at such long odds. I should have recognized you, but I didn’t – it has been decades, and if you want the truth I can hardly remember your father’s face.

So here I am. I didn’t really have to see the photograph, but of course, I looked. It was a small square with a white border. The border was printed on all four sides with the words MAY 1971. It was a short, brown-haired woman seated on a sofa, wearing a white blouse with a gaudy bow at the neck and a dark green skirt. She had on a gold necklace, and her hair was pulled back with a headband. She held a glass of wine in one hand, and there, sitting at her feet, was part of a chubby baby in short pants, cut off by the frame. The woman was Helen.

I had never seen her again after she went away. Someone might have just told my father a terrible lie. Perhaps there was no taxi accident. Who knows what really happened? I was less than a year old.

It has taken some time to write all of this down. The day seems to be concluding once again. I am tired, so very tired. I feel nothing but a dull heavy pressure in my head and a cramping in my hand. I wonder if my own soul still exists. Whether or not it does, I will now leave this portfolio, right here, at the base of the station. Who knows if it will ever be found or seen? But it matters little. Once you write down your story, you have done your job, independently of readers. I’ve always understood this.

I just looked up to the horizon, far past that unknowable, stiffening corpse. Even now I begin to see a thick, penetrating blackness blossoming out from behind the distant rocks like a Lotus. I stand now to climb the tower again. For I must re-join my mother, in a very different journey, inside yet another unknown.


Friday, December 12, 2008

'Suicide Station', Part 3.

[To read Part 1, "The Dead Ravine," go here.]

[To read Part 2, "Helen," go here.]

3. Bad gods
We were moving at a steady pace towards the obelisk, which seemed further away than it had before, now that I knew I actually had to reach the place. Helen, setting the pace, didn’t seem to feel nearly as creaky as she had appeared earlier. She moved along quite briskly now, arms swinging the folder as she occasionally gestured, speaking rapidly, and without any indication of the fatigue that I was feeling acutely. Somehow my appearance had supplied her with new energy.

They’re not really gods, as it were, she was saying. That’s just what we’ve always called them, from the beginning, but it really stuck when they turned on their creators and broke free.

But who created them? Are they people? Where do they come from?

The answer to the last question will enlighten you on the other two, said Helen. They come from laboratories in California. It all began with human cloning. I don’t know if it’s come to that yet in the Construct.

The desert wind was between gusts, and the cries now seemed remote once again. Perhaps their search was guiding them in a different direction. But could they not see the station? Wouldn’t they move towards it, if it seemed likely that human beings would try to reach it?

We’re cloning animals, I said, and debating whether cloning human beings is a good idea.

Helen smiled again. Aah, the Construct. Where everyone is so naïve. Well, I suppose that’s why it was cooked up in the first place. But if they’re knocking on the door of creating the clones there, clearly the Construct is getting pretty fragile too. You’re about ready to catch up with us here … Her voice faded.

So the gods are clones?

Yes. The kinds you hear were the newest models, Super-clones, sort of. See, we weren’t satisfied with just recreating ourselves. We had to create people that would last longer. And the technology was advancing so rapidly, mankind kept producing increasingly questionable innovations without holding our impulses in check. Because of all the new discoveries in micro-technology, as well as in plastics and other synthetics, we were soon able to not only clone the person, but to create new, artificial organs to put inside the doppelganger. And these organs functioned as well as the natural ones, but with far superior durability. It started to seem possible that we could clone people and dramatically extend their life expectancy. Hence the term gods, because the life span would fall between a human’s and God’s. At this time we still had states, and leave it to the old California, who became the first state to make it legal to start cranking out these cloned human beings. When they came of age, they were surgically implanted with synthetic organs, even artificial blood vessels for a partly synthetic circulatory system.

Holy crap, I said, genuinely astonished.

Are you really surprised? Helen asked.

What really set it off was this lunatic scientist named Rickman, Jon Rickman. He’s the guy that came up with the first prototype of the synthetic brain. A real whiz-kid all right, but not much foresight. Developed an astounding micro-biological network of silicone chips and fibers to replicate the core of the central nervous system. Once he figured out how to simulate the right electrical impulses and transmit them through fabricated synapses, he was over the hump. All he had to do was mold it into a lab-created gelatinous glob and insert it surgically into a cloned human being’s brain pan. Voila! A brain that wouldn’t quit.

I exhaled. Well, the Scarecrow would have loved that.

Who? said Helen.

Never mind, I replied, so confounded that I couldn’t even enjoy my own ridiculous joke. I had so many other questions, but this idea of the ‘bad gods’ roaming around with murderous intentions seemed the most urgent. Unless you considered the hurricane that was supposedly God on the march, that is. But every once in a while I could hear the distant cries again, and I was terrified at the notion of them drawing closer.

What went wrong, Helen? I asked, laboring to keep pace. It kept me warmer to do so anyway. You said they turned?

They sure did, my companion said. It led to all of this that you’re seeing before you. Mass destruction. I can tell you exactly what happened. The failure on the part of mankind was twofold. One was simply scientific, a failure of creativity and invention. It turned out that there was one organ that the labs simply couldn’t replicate effectively. No matter what they came up with, it would either rip apart or was too inflexible.

The heart? I guessed.

No. The epidermis. Skin. The exterior wrapper. They were determined to invent a workable duplicate, and they ran thousands of experiments. The number of clones in the facilities came close to a hundred thousand. They removed great swaths of the skin on nearly all of them and replaced them with their prototypes. Why they did not select a control group first is baffling. Some kind of catastrophic hubris. There’s a lot of debate over it. But anyway, every one of these experiments was an abject failure. The effect was disastrous. Within months you had almost a hundred thousand clones in labs with tattered skin, falling off of them, and it generated an enormous amount of anger and resentment that grew and grew.

In the science community?

No! In the clones! They looked like monsters. Hideous.

But if their brains were artificial, why would they care? How would they care?

No one has been able to answer that, nor did anyone anticipate it. Perhaps the brains were made too effectively.

That is just … well, they couldn’t ever fix the problem or at least rig something up? Skin grafts or something…

They were working on it. Frantically. But that’s when the second disaster hit – a failure a five-year-old child in a Sunday school class could have seen coming. In fact, most of the children did. They just didn’t have anyone’s ear.

Incredibly, Helen had to stop here, for her eyes had welled up with tears. I waited. Perhaps if I could have perceived this world the way it was before all of this, I would have had a similar response to the totality of the annihilation. Obviously Helen had borne witness to a tremendous amount of loss.

What was the second failure, Helen? I asked in a subdued voice.

You haven’t guessed? The question of the soul, of course. It had to flare up sooner or later. When it did, it created an absolute inferno. The clones lacked souls. By definition, it is impossible for clones to have them. They determined collectively that the crime this amounted to – the magnitude of what had been denied them – was not just irreversible; it was unconscionable, unforgivable. The verdict was immediate: death for the entire human race, wholesale. After that, they didn’t just look like monsters. They were monsters, and how they knew it! They broke from their bonds en masse, unleashed every form of violence and mayhem they could apprehend – weapons, diseases, famines, wild animals, everything – and here we are.

Sweet Jesus, I said, my eyes cabled to the ground.

Indeed, she said. She lifted her hand and again clapped it on my shoulder as we walked. Then she quickly let it drop. That’s why we’re getting out of here. I looked up at her, and when she caught my eyes, she nodded her head towards the obelisk.

That thing is gonna get us out of here? I asked incredulously.

It better. It’s a waystation. That’s what it’s there for. That’s what it’s always been there for.

I fell silent for a stretch. What she had been telling me was so overwhelming that I needed to contemplate it all. Somewhere along the line I had accepted the idea that I was no longer in a dream. This was too visceral, too immediate; and my gut was telling me I was here for the long haul, unless we were actually able to make it out.

I stared ahead at the obelisk. It was drawing closer, but it also seemed to have been farther away than I originally thought. But some features of the tower, if it could be said to have them, were starting to become clearer. It was square, and looked to be made of black stone, almost like coal. You could determine even from the remaining distance that the surfaces, the four sides, were not smooth. They were rough hewn. The whole structure must have been erected somehow, yet it looked like one massive block. I also was beginning to see what looked like a kind of line or railing wrapped diagonally around the tower, spiraling upward. It took another interlude of time, maybe thirty more minutes, before it was finally clear what these lines were. They were stairs. You could ascend the tower by spiraling around that stair case all the way to the top. A shudder coursed through me as I realized that I would be called to climb those stairs….

To do what, though? How did we get out of here by climbing that thing? I worked hard for a while to recall what I wanted to return to, but it remained hazy. I didn’t belong here, though. My life was elsewhere. But what about Helen? Didn’t she had a life here, however perilous it had been? Maybe no one was left. Yet earlier she had mentioned a son. I needed to understand her real motive to get out, and why she needed me.

Helen, there’s something I’m still trying to understand, I croaked, my throat catching fire like kindling. I tried to clear it a few times, with nominal results and more hacking. Sorry. My throat is hurting. If we don’t make it out of here we’ll die of sickness anyway.

Not quickly enough, Helen said ominously. I’d share provisions, but I have none left. The tower approaches, however. We’ll make it.

You said that God – Hurricane Deus, that is – is fast approaching. Correct?

There’s no question about it.

And we don’t want to be here when it hits. I take it that means it is destroying everything that’s still left. It’s only one of the ways we’ll die badly, I believe you said, if we stay around.

That’s right.

But you also said the place I come from, the Construct, is an illusion, a figment of some kind of collective imagination, conceived in this place.

Yes. That’s putting it in simple terms, but it’s about right.

Then doesn’t it follow, Helen, that if this world is about to go down to the reaper’s blade, so to speak, the illusion will follow? Surely you can’t destroy the original and have the facsimile remain behind. So that means the other world, where I come from, will be flattened too.

Helen was nodding. She could see where I was going with the thought. She placed her hand on my shoulder a third time, close to the neck. This seemed a confirmation. I don’t know why, but this time I reacted sharply to her touch. I almost jumped away, and surprised myself by nearly shouting at her.

Why do you keep doing that? Who ARE you? I don’t know you! I don’t need your consolation! I need you get me the hell out of here! But you’re sitting here telling me that you need me to get YOU out. Why? HOW? It’s all going down anyway. What’s the difference?

Helen stopped walking. She stared at me. Her dark eyes, which I guess were brown but looked almost black at that moment, bored into me. For some reason her gaze was deeply unsettling. I wanted her to look elsewhere, but she wouldn’t.

You’re not used to these shocks, she said. That’s why I tried to console you. You’re from the Construct. You have no idea what hell this world has become. You have NO IDEA what we here have been put through. If you did you would understand why I was doing that. You would know that acting like human beings towards one another is one of the only things we have left. So I won’t begrudge you your cold response. But I would suggest you not reject it out of hand like that.

I felt chastened, and fell silent. The dark streaks on her threadbare dress and the scratch on her face suddenly stood out as if they were neon. I started to imagine the scenario under which they had appeared, involuntarily, yet without much success.

Now. The answer to your question is: most likely. It seems to make sense that if this world, which spawned the Construct you live in, goes down, as you put it, the Construct will follow. But nobody knows that for certain. Only God does. If he wants to take this world and leave yours in its place, he could do that. At least in theory. But from what I’ve heard the Construct is not necessarily worth preserving either.

Do you really believe that God would keep one and not the other? Or do you just long to experience the Construct so much you’ll try anything?

Helen made a kind of shrug, but her head was shaking as I spoke.

Neither. Probably both are doomed. But I’d much prefer to live out what I can inside the illusion, as it were, than here in the reality. I think you would agree if you knew what was coming.

If the storm is God, why isn’t it here yet? After all, he tramples through the vintage with a terrible, swift sword.

Helen glanced at me as though I had just changed languages. Excuse me?

Sorry. Forget it. But surely he could do in this whole expanse in one fell swoop. Why hasn’t he?

You’re asking me? You’d do better not to. Perhaps he’s moving at his own pace. Why not drag it out?

The cynicism – or maybe the lack of it – with which she made this off-handed comment about God deliberately dragging out destruction rattled me further. It made me speculate on the nature of her relationship to God, or of God’s to the inhabitants of this world. Maybe this relationship was far different, much more distant, much less dependent on intimacy. It was a dangerous line of thinking, for it led straight to the consideration that the comfort and security many of us took from a relationship with God in the Construct could be illusory as well. If the entire world I knew was false, what could one make of its conceits and assumptions?

The real reason that I want to get out is not so much about the storm or the destruction. It has to do with something I mentioned to you earlier, said Helen, and now the tone of her voice was in transition. Her face, turned towards me, softened.

Your son …..


Tell me about it, I said.

With that, we occupied much of the remaining gap between ourselves and the tower with Helen explaining about her baby boy and how she had made the agonizing decision to send him through to the Construct. Three or four decades ago, she said, when the cloning was at its peak and they were secretly building up the hundred thousand in their facilities, there were some people who saw what was coming. She and her baby’s father, a military man, were two of this group. They had just had their one and only son when the gods broke out of their bondage and the carnage began that had not yet reached an end. The two of them made their terrible decision, hoping to preserve the boy’s life and give him happiness, but vowing to one day recover him. But not long after that the baby’s father was sent forward to the first engagement with the lunatic clones, when they seized Fort Irwin and Edwards Air Force Base. She never saw him again. The clones destroyed an entire Army division in less than a day, then turned as many weapons and aircraft as they could on New Los Angeles, San Diablo, and NORAD. And from there, all hell, as they say, broke loose on the Earth.

I honestly did not understand much of this, let alone knowing what to make of it. There were so many questions that her story begged to have answered that it didn’t seem possible to begin. But also, curiously, I was gripped by an increasing sensation that none of it really mattered, and that what made sense, in some odd and disconcerting way, no longer needed to. It was almost as if my very understanding of coherence was becoming incoherent.

At the same time, over the course of this story and others, the tower finally drew near. Its sheer massiveness was stunning. If I had to approximate the height of the monolith, I would put it somewhere around 500 feet. I could see now at only a few hundred yards away that it did indeed seem to be made out of a gargantuan single block of black stone. The stairs surrounding the exterior sides of the four-sided column were made of the same material, as though they had been scaled out of a larger piece. They were narrow and slightly uneven; making for what I anticipated would be a harrowing ascent. There was no railing upon which one could reclaim their balance; if you slipped on one of the stairs, you would more than likely tumble over the side.

At no point, either once we got to the tower or anywhere along the way, did I ever see any other human being. The only indication that there was anything else even present in this world, aside from Helen’s word, was the tortured voices of the bad gods, whose inhuman caterwauling continued to assault my ears at varying intervals. Yet they never came into view. They operate better at night for some reason, was all that Helen would say about whether or not they would ever show up.

There were many indications, however, that others had visited the tower at some time before. The thin, scratched-out-trails leading across the cracked desert that I had first seen at a distance, for one. Scuff marks and small piles of ash and stone were in evidence everywhere else as well, as if people had walked around or even camped adjacent to the tower. God knew how many people in some distant or very recent past had come here and ascended, looking to cross over. But it seemed as though they were all gone – departed, or dead, or maybe even worse than that.

Thinking about all those faceless people, coming here out of a desire to escape something so overwhelming that it would allow one to happily embrace what they knew to be illusory, made me wonder about something else. As we approached the tower, I turned to Helen again.

So, to cross over, Helen, I suppose we have to climb this thing.

Yes, she said. If you could do it from the ground I guess we wouldn’t need a tower.

Fair point. But you said you needed me to get there. To where your son is.

I do. You must have someone from the Construct with you to be able to cross. Only they can make it happen.

But I have no inkling of how that is done. I don’t even know how I got here.

You were summoned. Somehow, someone summoned you here. It could have been anybody.

But I don’t see anyone anywhere.

That doesn’t mean they are not here. There are several bands of survivors in the cities. Many of them are underground.

The bands, or the cities?

The bands and the cities.

I shook my head. Underground cities?

Nuclear fallout will incline you to seek permanent shelter, she added.

But like I said, Helen, I don’t know how—

Yes you do. There is a way. Leave it to me. As long as you are from the Construct – I believe it was the old Pittsburgh, you said – you can get us back. I’ll show you how. This is why I was so excited to see you. You’re the only way I can get across. You’re the only way I can finally locate my son. I’ve been waiting for this for many, many years. And I’ve been wandering around up here for months on end.

I felt a jolt of sympathy and pure melancholy. The suffering she must have endured. The fatigue. The hunger!

Why are you alone if there are others around? I asked her.

No one would come with me. They said none of you could be found.

What if they had been right?

I was prepared to die trying. I didn’t have much left to lose. But having found you, I now have a great deal to gain. If only for a brief moment. It gives me a reason to live. She smiled at me. Her smile seemed so genuine, so hopeful, that I couldn’t help but return it. In spite of the circumstances, we walked along harmoniously, communicating something between ourselves.

Ten minutes later, we stood at the base of the tower, next to the first stair of hundreds. The massive object stupefied me, as though crushing any further capacity for comment. The tower cast no shadow, for the sky was one solid sheet of gunmetal – and now that I peered up the side of the black column to observe it hovering over everything, I noticed that the firmament seemed to be darkening. Was this the approach of night already? I had no sense of how much time had flown underneath our travels, our conversations. The prospect, however, filled me with a fresh, vigorous terror.

They operate better at night, she had said.

Suddenly, Helen seemed to finally feel the weight of her exhaustion. She abruptly plopped down into a sitting position at the base of the tower, and leaned her back against it. I stood there in front of the first stair, staring at her.

Sit down, she said, and gestured to the fractured ground.

We’re not going up? I asked, flummoxed.

She chuckled. Yes we are. But it might be better to get some rest first.

Is it getting darker though?

Yep, she said, stretching her legs out before her. She uttered a long sigh. What I could see of her legs was riddled with bruises and scrapes. Obviously she did need a break.

Man. This is place is one big contradiction. Did you not say before that they operate better at night? And then there’s the small matter of the approaching God-storm. I don’t understand any of this.

Yes, I know about all that. The dangers are real. But at the moment they seem to be at some distance. Ours not to question why. Rather, we should alternate taking the watch. I’ll go first. I suggest you try to sleep. More than I, you will need energy to help us cross over.

It was really only one more oddity in what had been a non-stop succession, so I found myself not as surprised as I might have been to have my expectations debunked. Besides, now that she had mentioned it, she seemed correct: all was quiet. I could not hear any of the voices at that moment. Sitting right underneath the tower, it seemed the wind had died down. I scanned each horizon in the now-fading light for as far as my eyes could reach, but all I saw was gently rolling plains of wasted, cracked earth. No storms came. My throat still hurt, and was so dry I was surprised I could even speak. If for no other reason, I hoped that she was correct that we could soon cross over into the Construct so we could find ourselves some food and water.

Okay, Helen. If you think we ought to rest, I won’t argue. But shouldn’t it be you that rests first? You’ve been through more than I have.

You go ahead. I’m used to it. Things have been bad for a long time. And I’ve been toughing it out up here for months as I said. You still don’t seem to know what hit you. I’ll be all right.

Can’t blame me for not knowing what hit me, I thought, but said nothing. Instead, I just nodded, and sat down on the hard earth near her feet. I pulled my wallet out and set it on the desert surface close by. I didn’t want to try to sleep with something bulky in my back pocket. Helen just watched me numbly. She seemed pretty tired herself, but at this point I was just doing what she said. She clearly had a better idea of what to do around here than I did. She set the black leather portfolio that she had been carrying all along on the ground.

What is that thing? I asked as I let myself down into a supine position right there in the dust. I was tired.

Helen pointed to the folder. This?

Yeah. You keep it close to you, but you never open it. What is it?

She chuckled. I guess it’s a kind of souvenir. A keepsake, you might say. I’m holding on to it for no real reason. I found it in the ruins of the laboratories.

She picked up the folder and opened it. Indeed, it was nothing more than one of those business folders I had pictured before, including the yellow pad. In a little loop in the middle of the case there was what looked like a standard Bic ball point pen. It was the sort of thing you could find in any office store in the Construct. On the lower left hand side, however, there was a small brass plate with something engraved on it. I picked my head up and squinted, then gasped. The engraving read JON RICKMAN, P.h.D.

Whoa, I said. Now THAT is funny.

Helen stared at me for almost a full minute. Had she heard me?

Ironic, really, she said, in a kind of waifish tone. She closed it up and set it back down. I keep thinking I am going to take some notes, record some of the things I’ve seen. But for whatever reason I haven’t done so.

Maybe you can do it now, I said, half-interested. I was very tired, more so than I realized. I laid down completely on my back, hands folded over my belly, head down on the hard surface. Despite the uncomfortable accommodations, I found myself nearly asleep.

Maybe, I heard Helen say, and that is all I remember.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

'Suicide Station', Part 2

[To read Part 1. The Dead Ravine go here.]

2. Helen
Scrambling to the top of the embankment thrust all previous surprises into greater perspective. What had I expected to see? A great city skyline? A suburban sprawl like the one I lived in? A pastoral pasture dotted far and wide with sheep and cows?

There were no houses, no cities, no landscape; indeed, there was no life, save one, which I will draw in presently. I was looking out over a vast, nearly infinite wasteland.

Three things were immediately noticeable. The first was the unencumbered emptiness of the earth – if this was even the correct planet. The color of the sky was almost indistinguishable from the color of the ground – an ashen, dusty hue, with the corpse of the color red cremated and scattered throughout. There was no sunlight. It seemed to be entirely overcast.

The second immediately obvious feature was far in the distance, most of the way towards a jagged horizon. There stood a huge black obelisk, a tower of some kind. It was not exceedingly tall, but tall enough; and given the distance between it and me, it seemed very wide as well. However, distances might very well have deceived on a canvas this broad. But no matter how great the tower actually was, there was no way to miss it; it was the focal point of an otherwise featureless expanse. It looked to me like there were trails or pathways from all directions leading towards the tower, for I could see streaks over the cracked ground, much like the fragile thread beams that anchor the delicate framework of a spider web. How long this tower had been there was anyone’s guess, but it had an ancient aura about it, like the Acropolis or the Pyramids, and even from far off it looked as though it were definitely made of stone, not metal or wood.

For whatever reason, this tower seemed to be some sort of significant destination, a place people migrated to for one reason or another, and had done so for a very long time – decades, perhaps even centuries.

The third item to capture my vision as I emerged over the lip of the ravine was a wider road, stretching from left to right at the bottom of the downslope. It was the only trail in view that did not appear to lead to the obelisk. Instead it meandered and curved its way across the grain of the other, thinner pathways in its own unspecific direction. And now that I was paying the road attention, I noticed something else on it that hadn’t stood out immediately, probably due to the massiveness of the surrounding wasteland. A human figure, slowly making its way forward, heading to some place that was not the tower.

The sight of another person trumped all others, and I sucked in all my breath involuntarily. I felt the scrape of air over the infected soreness in my throat. Was there any kind of shelter out here from which one could escape the elements? Unless yonder obelisk was hollow, it didn’t look that way. Nothing seemed more important to me at that moment than flagging this wandering figure down and engaging them, if possible; and perhaps even traveling with them to wherever they were going.

I squinted down towards the lone traveler. It was a fairly long slope down the embankment; everything in this bizarre land seemed to be constructed on a broad scale. But one thing was instantly clear as soon as I zeroed in on the walking figure: it was a woman. I could tell this by the brevity of her strides – although she wasn’t exactly moving at a rapid pace – and by the fact that she was wearing some sort of dress, a garment that seemed every bit as inadequate to the conditions as my own outfit, if not more so.

The woman hadn’t seen me yet. She had her head canted downward and appeared to be lost in thought. Was she in a similar position to my own: lost, unaware of where she was, or where to go? It was impossible to know, but it seemed clear that she had something weighing on her mind. I was filled with a sudden, irrational urge to help her with that burden, no matter what it was, in utter disregard for my own widening predicament.

In any case, she did look as though she could use the assistance of, or maybe just the reassuring presence of, another person. I knew I could use the same, so I resolved to flag her down. However, just before I stepped off from the lip of the embankment, something made me freeze again. It was a noise – a terrifying one. A stronger gust of wind had swept over me, moving in the direction of the tower. When the gust came through it carried the sound to my ears, something I had not been able to hear in the ravine.

I can only describe it as a kind of semi-human wailing, but from numerous mouths, not merely one. All the voices were stepping on top of one another, over and over. It is nearly impossible to communicate the sounds accurately in language, but if pressed I would say they were like the crossing of an aggravated dog’s bark and a human being’s cry of extreme anguish. The sources of the cries were a great distance away – so far off, I supposed, that they could not be sighted: I whirled around and scanned all horizons, including the totally empty one behind me, but saw nothing else. Wherever they came from, it sounded as though they were moving together, like a pack of wolves, searching ravenously for something and obviously not finding it. These sounds were remarkably disconcerting, given the imbroglio I was in already. They honed in immediately on my nerves as if they had some kind of tracking capability. Perhaps the woman in front of me could help to demystify them. For the moment, as the wind died down again, the voices faded away, but I was certain they would be back.

That certainty gave me the impression that time was being wasted – and it was, although at the moment I didn’t know what prompted the need for urgency – so I started down the hill right away. As soon as I started moving again, she noticed my presence, and looked up. However surprised and pleased I might have been to see her when I climbed up out of the ravine was nothing compared to the effect that my appearance seemed to have on the wandering woman. She stopped abruptly, almost leaped up in apparent jubilation, and waved both hands above her head.

She began to step up the embankment, but then saw that I was obviously coming in her direction, and stayed where she was. I waved one hand to signal my peaceful intentions, even though I felt nervous about her strong reaction. The woman was now standing impatiently, wringing her hands, shuffling her feet, waiting for me to draw near, as though I was in possession of something she needed or wanted. Even before I reached her I felt an almost overwhelming urge to holler, Whoa. Don’t look at me, lady. But somehow I managed to hold it in.

I had the opportunity to take stock of her appearance as I got closer. She was fairly short, maybe five and a half feet at the most, and was clearly older than I was. If I had to guess her age I would have felt comfortable pinning it down at just about sixty. Her hair was mostly gray, but had obviously been either a dark brown or black in earlier years. It was tied behind her head somehow and hanging in a ponytail past her shoulders, by how far I couldn’t tell, but many strands had come loose from one physical struggle or another to wildly frame her face.

She had dark eyes, set deeply in the leathery flesh, bracketed by stark crow’s feet. Her face was smeared with dirt in some places. When I got closer I saw that she also had a few scrapes on her forehead and a long, angry scratch down the left side of her face, from above the eye down to the jawline. The dress-like garment she wore was nondescript and off-white, with two pockets a V-cut collar, but the most noticeable thing about it was that it was worn and dirty, stained with whatever elements the mind could conjure. There were several vertical, dark streaks of something rather ominous down the front, much like my own top, except in greater quantity. It seemed clear that the woman had been on the move for some time and had not had the easiest go of it.

I noticed as I drew close, right before she began talking as though she and I were accustomed to having conversations, that she also carried a small black portfolio that looked like something I might have taken with me to the office complex I mentioned, in my other life. It resembled one of those snazzy folders that contain a pad of lined paper and a few slots for business cards and not a whole lot else. It struck me as vaguely absurd that she might have been carrying something like this – was she running late for a meeting? – but it’s not as though this was the only oddity I’d come across in my most recent experience. Just as I was wondering what in the hell she might be carrying in the case, the woman hailed me.

Are you from the Construct, man?? she shouted.

Stumbling to the bottom, I tried to make sense of this while pausing to catch my breath. My throat bristled with irritation.

What? I rasped.

The Construct? Are you from … where were you born? asked the woman, who was evidently looking for confirmation of something she already felt was the truth. She was trying to meet my eyes, so I looked at hers: a dark, vacuous brown.

Pittsburgh. I was born in Pittsburgh, I said, perplexed.

Then this woman actually pumped one of her fists, punching the air, which might be the most positive response I’ve ever gotten to the disclosure that I was from Pittsburgh.

They said no more of you were still around, she said by way of explanation, although this clarified precisely nothing. They said it was suicide, a fool’s errand. And it damned well almost was. But I knew that there had to be some of you here. Or at least one of you. And the alternative was just to sit and wait.

My mind whorled, and at that moment I doubted the woman was all there. What the hell was she talking about? Who were they? What did no more of you mean? Wait for what?

Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I said, stopping her. Where are we? Who are you? And what is this place? I looked around again. The embankment obstructed the view behind me, and the obelisk loomed in the distance.

My name’s Helen, said the woman. She didn’t extend a hand or make any sort of welcoming gesture, but her tone was not unpleasant. It did reveal a slight impatience, as if she had to force herself to slow down. She also seemed weary. I was soon to discover that she had good reason for both impatience and fatigue.

As far as where we are, I doubt you’d have a word for it where you’re from, because you wouldn’t know about it. Now you do. Let’s put it this way. Sometimes people concoct a bloated perception of what a person, or an idea, or even a place is. It’s human nature, right? When that happens, a second version of that thing is created. There’s the actual version, and there’s a younger, illusory version. Where you live – where you’re from – is the illusory version. This is the real thing. She gestured with one hand towards the expanse.

I just stared at her. My teeth chattered. I was convinced that I had to be dreaming, for what this woman had just told me was what I had ruefully imagined earlier: that I was dreaming before, as in before I laid my head down to sleep in that …. with …..

Did you just say to me that where I am from is an illusion? It doesn’t exist? I stared at her.

Yes. Sorry about that, Helen remarked. That’s why it’s called the Construct. It is one huge defensive mechanism, designed to shield former inhabitants of this world from the truth. It’s a pretty good one, though. It’s almost too effective. People in the Construct go their whole lives without knowing it. I sent my own son there.

This woman was insane. There was no question of that anymore. But what was I going to do about it? Just walk away and leave her there? To go where?

While I was pondering these things, Helen was staring at me, making me more uncomfortable by the moment. She was showing more patience now, but it was obvious that she wanted me to just accept what she had said and move on. With her, evidently. She seemed to have been waiting for or searching for me, or someone in my situation.

As if reading my thoughts, she said in a gentler tone, Look, none of that really matters right now. What matters is that you are here, just as I thought one of you would be. Thank God— She cut herself off. Then she chuckled. I guess it’s rather ironic to use that expression, at this stage.

I was so dumbfounded that I couldn’t think of what to say next. She was rattling off too many utterly weird statements for me to keep up. That last remark tripped me up completely, however, so I asked, Use what expression? I was surprised by the frustrated tone I was unable to keep out of my voice.

Thank God, Helen said.

Why is it ironic?

Because of the storm, of course. Hurricane Deus. It’s coming fast. You don’t want to be here when it arrives.

Wait a minute. The storm – the hurricane – is ….

It’s called Hurricane Deus. Why do you think they called it that?

I don’t …. I croaked, but then doubled over with a coughing fit, and couldn’t continue.

When I looked up again, indiscreetly wiping spittle from my beard that I had half-expected to be blood but was not, the woman – Helen – was still standing calmly before me, her hands clasped in front of her, pinning the portfolio to her belly. I could still sense the urgency she had revealed before, but it was as though she had brought it entirely in check now, and was able to stand serenely until I was done sputtering and was ready to join her. Given that she had just told me that a storm she believed was God, or that had at least been named after God, was bearing down on us – literally – this stance of hers was instructive. She was no idiot. I suppose she technically still might have been insane, but the shape that particular term had assumed in my mind up until then seemed to be becoming rather fluid.

I breathed deeply a few times, to make sure that respiration was still possible, then held up one hand.

Helen. Listen, I don’t know where I am, who you are, or anything. You’ll have to forgive the questions, but I need the answers, or whatever you can give me. If you know I’m from whatever you just called it—

The Construct.

Yes, that. Thanks. If you know that, then you can probably understand why I’m so out of sorts. Actually, right now, it’s hard to believe I am not dreaming all this up.

Helen smiled. The wind started to pick up, just a tiny breeze at first …. it toyed with those loose strands of gray hair around her wrinkled but sympathetic face.

I wish I could affirm that you were. But don’t despair – you have the means of escape. That’s why I’m so happy to have found you.

But I—

I’m afraid we’ll have to talk about it more on the move. I’ll explain what I can. If we stay here though, one way or another, we’ll die, and badly. Come on. Then she placed a hand on my shoulder. Since I’m a good deal taller than she, this gesture seemed somewhat comical.


To the waystation. We can’t waste any more time.

The wind had increased to a howl in about twenty seconds. Then the voices came again: screaming, barking, taunting, braying. The wind masked the distance; I could not discern if they were drawing near, or still very far away.

It seemed obvious what the waystation was. What else could it have been?

Helen turned and began to stride rapidly in the direction of the obelisk, looming in the haze ahead, dead silent, monumental. I stepped in with her. The wind was at our backs as if urging us, or perhaps forcing us, forward. The long reach of those anguished cries curled around my ears like tendrils of a living vine, flicking at my inner ear, probing for the mental core.

Shivering and breathing with difficulty, I stammered, without looking at my companion, What … ARE … those??

You have to stay alert all the time, Helen responded strangely, eyes fixated on the tower. Here are bad gods.

I tried to chuckle at that. To ease my own mind. But the wind snatched the choked attempt and carried it off towards the waystation.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Mutt Ploughman's 'Suicide Station', Part 1.

As alluded to in previous posts, I now present the first installment of a brand new serialized short story I am debuting on this blog, entitled 'Suicide Station'. I will post a new installment every 4-5 days; there are four sections in all. I hope you enjoy this dark ride, partially inspired by the work of Stephen King, partially inspired by a dream.

A Dark Tale

1. The Dead Ravine
Most of my dreams are abstract and bizarre, and when I wake they vanish quickly. But when I came awake into this one, the one I am still caught inside even as I write these words, everything was clear and tangible. It felt different from all others. The chill in the air. The sharp teeth of this graveyard wind. The aridity of the hard earth beneath me. The smell of dust and ash and metal. The spectral wake from a pestilential tide that had recently swept over this territory, and the hint of the final destruction soon to follow.

I woke up jolting with painful coughs. A dry, brittle hand seemed to reach inside my throat and scoop out the breath from my lungs. It felt like my ribcage had been battered silly by numerous other fits that had come before, but I didn’t remember them. All I knew is that I found myself hacking away before I was aware of anything else.

The first shock of many was what stood in for my bedclothes. I discovered that I had wrapped myself in a large sheath of mangled cardboard. It must have been an old refrigerator box. Gripped by the coughing that had pulled me out of whatever sleep I had managed, I attempted to sit upright, only to discover the makeshift sleeping bag enclosing me. It failed to cover my lower legs or to keep me warm. I kicked angrily in frustration until it broke apart. Part of the box skittered away in one of the occasional gusts of wind that reached where I lay. For a while the other piece of the stained, torn cardboard lingered nearby. One flap stuck up into the air with the inverted words THIS END UP and an arrow pointing down towards the dead land.

I sat up on the cold ground, still coughing. Panic washed through me. Dream? Where I had been when I fell asleep – in my own bedroom, lying next to my wife, with our two little children sleeping down the hall – was slipping out of my awareness, fading fast as if it had never existed, as though that life, 38 years in duration, had been little more than a prolonged mirage. For I was no longer in a bed, in a bedroom, in a house or in a suburb. Now I was seated on the banks of what must have once been a stream or a river, next to the skeleton of a long-dead tree, with high ground on all sides, as though the water that at one time had flowed through here had carved out a ravine.

There were no buildings visible anywhere, but I was on low ground. There were no other human beings or life forms of any kind. The air was cold and dry and my body was uncomfortably chilled, but not freezing. A gray light in the sky seemed to be brightening slowly. Dawn. I had absolutely no memory of coming to this place.

My lips opened, with the intention of calling out my wife’s name. It was a reflex; but when I started to do so, the name itself flew from my cognizance. I couldn’t remember it. With mounting concern, I determined to picture the house I lived in, or at least the room in which I had gone to sleep. But even as I remembered how these familiarities had appeared only a short time before, the mental images, just like the names, stole away from me. It felt as though I wasn’t actually dreaming at all but had instead been transported somehow, physically and mentally, to this other place. Yet even though I could not remember the images or the names, their absence did occupy a space in my mind, and the awareness of another place (another world?) recently vacated remained.

Hacking again and shuddering now, I surveyed myself from top to bottom and saw that I was wearing strange clothes: a gray, long-sleeved sweatshirt, stained and unwashed, with long drips of what looked like motor oil or blood or some other dark liquid streaking down the front; blue jeans that were worn at the knees and frayed at the ankles; a pair of running shoes, it looked like, that must have once been white with black trim but were now discolored into more of an ashen tone with clumps of mud and God knew what else clinging to the sides. These were not clothes that I recognized, but at least they fit my body.

Then a startling thought occurred to me and, lacking a mirror or any other kind of reflective surface, I began to pat my head with my hands and fingers to determine if I was even the same person physically. But here, at least, was no great shock – I still had the same face, the same goatee beard that now had strokes of gray, the same prematurely bald dome with the remaining hair cropped close to the skull. Evidently the physical injustices that I had been dealt in the other world had not been corrected on my passage into this one.

Although I was insufficiently rested, my limbs ached, and my dry throat rasped with pain, clearly I had to move to assess the full extent of my predicament. I struggled to my feet, beating sand and brittle twigs from my limbs. Because of the steep embankments, rising over the level of my head, I couldn’t see to the horizon in any direction, so my first order of business would be to climb out of this ravine and try to orient myself. Out of habit, I patted at my pockets, which I often do to make sure I have my car keys, wallet, cell phone, and whatever else I need to carry around in order to validate my existence. Or at least my former one. There was no cell phone or set of keys, but to my surprise, the back pocket of the jeans did contain my wallet. I pulled it out and began to rifle through the contents.

Never have I wished before that I was one of those men who carries around pictures of his family! The fact is that I have never done so. When I buy a new wallet I take out the plastic thing that holds photographs. It’s not that I don’t want to have images of my wife and daughters close at hand, but I never end up showing them – nobody asks anymore. And because of all the plastic cards and various forms of identification and ATM receipts that seem obligatory somehow, the wallet always ends up being too thick. Since there exists that unwritten law of the universe that says a man simply will not carry with him what cannot be stuffed in a pocket – the unacceptable alternative being some kind of manpurse – the solution was to reduce the contents of the wallet so it could be carried comfortably. Now, however, I needed some other reassurance that I was still who I thought I was.

I looked into the cash folder portion of my wallet and was startled to find several bills. I am not affluent. It is uncommon for me to carry much cash. But it looked like I had a pretty hefty amount stashed away here, for the bills were not singles. At least I seem to have come prepared in this respect, thought I. Then the oddness continued, causing me to revisit the question of whether I wasn’t simply dreaming all of this. It made sense, given the fact that I had money. But when I took hold of the bills with my fingers, I made the mistake of pulling them completely out of the leather fold to count them. As soon as the bills came clear of the wallet, they immediately turned into what looked like ashes, or at least gray dust – I didn’t get to inspect the remnants for very long, for the slight breeze carried the dust off and scattered it over the brittle ground. So much for preparation.

My next thought was reasonable; at least it would have been in the world I had recently vacated. Lacking cash, I thought, there was always plastic. Perhaps there was an ATM machine somewhere in this place. Even as I had the thought, however, the absurdity of it struck me almost like the slap you might visit upon someone who makes a fantastically inept suggestion in the midst of an extreme crisis. The kind of idea that is so obviously not helpful it actually makes the situation worse. Not here, you idiot, my mind told me. To reinforce the point, when I took out my VISA debit card, it looked just like my own, but the critical information on it, my name and the card number, appeared this way:

†‡•‰ € ­í¿•˛–ƒ

Two other credit cards I owned had similar aspects: they looked like the ones I typically carried, but the identifying information was indecipherable. I did notice that the characters replacing the letters of my name varied from card to card, however, and never repeated themselves. Yet the characters replacing what should have been identifiable numerals were all the same, as if numerals didn’t exist any longer; this confirmed what I had always suspected as a student, that eventually numbers would not matter, but words and language always would.

The final stroke was when I removed my work identification/entrance key, a plastic card that was shaped just like every other one in the wallet but featured only a passport-style photograph of myself and the words of my name. Normally this allowed me unwelcome access to one of those office complexes, probably designed by Communist architects, where one chisels away at their own soul each day under the auspices of employment. But now the words were again replaced by cryptic characters, and perhaps the most startling, the photograph was altered. It had the same nondescript background that I recalled from the day I stood for it, and it even seemed to accurately represent my shoulders, neck, and the shape of my head. But where my face should have been was a blank. Not as though that part of the image had been cut away – I mean a blank oval, the color of my own skin.

Only at this point did I begin to feel fear. Perhaps less fear than simple panic. What the hell was going on here? Where was I? Who was I? was the next question, but I didn’t allow myself to even consider it. I was not yet prepared to concede the nullification of my existence. After all, moments ago I had touched my own face and been lucky enough to find it there. Now I did so again, with the same result. That was fortunate, but I was shaken. The accumulating questions were now weighing heavily on the thin suspension bridge formed by my reason and sense of calm. If it gave way there was only the abyss beneath.

Suddenly, I remembered about one last item in my wallet that might provide reassurance. Something that to me suddenly seemed of grave importance. I mentioned before that I did not carry photographs in my wallet, but there is one exception. In the last slot where one normally keeps credit cards, their driver’s license, etc., I had tucked away a single photograph that had been in my possession since I was five years old. I looked in the wallet again, and fortunately, it was there.

It was a neat square, not large, and was old enough to have been developed on film stock that had a thin white border around all four sides with the date printed on each. The date on this image was May 1971. The photo itself was of me, as a baby of 7 months old, sitting up next to a couch, looking at the camera with a befuddled expression on my face, which for an unknown reason was not blanked out in the picture. In my meaty little hands I was clutching a long black block, rectangular in shape, almost like a column. I never found this picture very cute or interesting, but the reason I kept it was not for the image of me. It was for a mere fraction of the person in the background.

To my right side in the picture, the left side for the viewer, was the lower half of a pair of female legs, one crossed over the other in a formal manner. On the feet were brown shoes with a half-inch heel, and over the knee, which was just barely in view, was the hem of a dark green skirt. Those legs belonged to my mother, and they were the only picture I still owned of her, or even a little of her. She was killed two weeks after that photograph was taken, on a business trip, in a wrecked taxicab. This was one of the few items left for me that could evoke even the slightest, most fleeting memory of this woman, whose absence from the rest of my life had always felt to me like a cruel injustice.

Looking at the photograph always gave me an unwelcome jolt to the heart because of what I have just described. I swallowed this back, however, for the photograph had only one purpose in this particular instance, and it was not sentimental. It confirmed for me that I was still myself, which under the circumstances was no small thing. That left only one thing for me to do.

I had to get out of the ravine and examine the world I was trapped inside.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Towering Feat of the Imagination

Some palaver on reaching the halfway point in Stephen King’s Dark Tower epic.

I wrote a post a few months (see August archives) back about having crossed the halfway point in reading J.K. Rowling’s behemoth ‘Harry Potter’ series after I had completed the fourth book. It seems fitting, now that I have crossed the same threshold in Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga – I am just completing the fourth novel of seven, Wizard & Glass – to reflect on this series also, and perhaps jot down some thoughts on the long way towards an ambition I have to one day write an essay which examines one epic story in light of the other and vice-versa. If it was only about sales, Rowling would win hands down: her series has sold more copies than any other in publishing history. Of course, Stephen King is not exactly unfamiliar with strong book sales. His novels have been flying off the shelves for far longer than Rowling’s have.

When you introduce Stephen King into a discussion about literature, there will always be plenty of detractors who say he should not be a part of the conversation. It’s a well-known story that on the very night he was presented with the National Book Foundation’s medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, a controversial decision, the winner of that year’s National Book Award in Fiction, Shirley Hazzard, decried his selection. Critic Harold Bloom described him at the time as being the author of ‘penny dreadfuls’. And so forth. King has had literary critics his entire career. It has never slowed down his ability to write stories people around the world loved to read. And on that night, King commented on all the hoopla with humility: ‘I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded.’

Literary critics have plenty of legs to stand on when they critique King’s writing. He’s a sloppy, overbearing and sometimes sophomoric prose writer; his stories are riddled with gratuitous gore and sex, even for someone who specializes in the horror genre; his characters are frequently cartoonish and unintentionally ridiculous; and, in addition to all that, he can display an unpalatable poor taste in his stories and in his use of language. All of these things are on typical display in the Dark Tower series and certainly in the fourth novel, Wizard & Glass. How can a writer who relies on these techniques really command the attention of serious literary minds for very long?

It’s tough to say definitively, but one can go a long way towards imagining how that could be when you consider the simple fact – and I think this probably is a fact – that in 100 years, almost every prominent ‘literary’ novelist of our time will be remembered only with difficulty, but we will almost certainly still be reading and talking about Stephen King books. Just think about that for a moment, and maybe we have part of our answer.

While we are contemplating this, let’s turn our eyes towards the Dark Tower, shall we? Here we have an epic fantasy series for which the creator clearly has long-term, perhaps career-defining ambitions. King obviously regards this series as his magnum opus, and why not? It’s certainly no worse than any of his other accomplishments, and in terms of sheer imagination, it rivals his very best work. Is this saying much? Perhaps, perhaps not.

We must remember that a lot of people find it amazing that J.K Rowling came up with the idea for Harry Potter in a train in 1990, and it took until 2007 for her to realize the massive breadth of her intentions. But that’s child’s play, time-wise, compared to King’s achievement with the Dark Tower series. He came up with his idea in 1970, and at the time he was totally unknown and so down on his luck that he didn’t even have the resources to take his own ambitions on. As Wikipedia has it, he shelved the idea, and took a second job pumping gas at $1.25 an hour to make ends meet instead, all the while penning nutty horror stories to try to make a few bucks here an there to pay bills. And it’s not like he didn’t have responsibilities to live up to: he was already married with two little children, and making $6,600 a year as a high school English teacher. It took King not seventeen but thirty-five years to complete his opus. If nothing else that is a testament to the man’s endurance and tenacity of vision. He would not let his story go unwritten, and he also felt a great obligation to his readers, who craved resolution. I find that kind of follow-through admirable.

In the most cursory analysis, however, this series lags behind the Harry Potter epic in many areas, not just sales. Rowling’s story is more elegantly written, more appealing to a larger body of people (wiping out the lines between ‘adult’ and ‘children’s’ literature), and far more carefully plotted. Even though her story is long, the corners fight tightly together, the lines are worn smooth, and the end result is polished and structurally secure – at least, so far. King’s epic is almost the complete opposite. It’s bulky, unruly and sometimes so unencumbered, you wonder if you’re really reading a draft that slipped through the editing cycle. Though it took much more time, it’s far less polished. One can argue that this shouldn’t be the case. King may not be as skilled at plotting a long story as Rowling clearly is, but he at least could have cleaned up the shoddy language and cut back the obviously overgrown thickets during his pruning process. That he didn’t raises questions about his literary judgment, even after all this time on the job, and also about his publishers’ desire for money, for they seem to believe that the public will consume just about anything King writes, and will shirk on editing and revision just to get the product out to consumers. You can’t kill the publishers for that, however – they’re correct about it, for one thing. But you can criticize King for not being more meticulous about his craft. Not that this has ever been his way.

With all that seems to favor Rowling’s series, why is King’s even in contention with it, at least for this reader? The answer to this question is seated upon a questionable foundation: that there is something to be said for tenaciousness and imaginative power even in the face of shaky literary quality. That having the steadfastness to finish a race can stand up to the accomplishment of running a better race. One result may be superior, but which is the more formidable achievement? Do the spoils always go to the victor? (If so, it would be hard to explain the enduring popularity of the film Rocky. It’s not the acting.) It’s a good question.

King’s story is inspired by a 19th century English poem by Robert Browning called ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. The story goes that in 1970 he thought up the first line of the entire series and wrote it down: ‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’ The fact that the entire saga springs forth from that image of the tower and that single sentence is to me fairly astounding. But it would be a number of years before the first novel, The Gunslinger, would appear, originally in 1982. That first installment tells the story of the pursuit hinted at in the opening sentence, and introduces Roland Deschain, the saga’s protagonist. He is the last gunslinger, a kind of half-bounty hunter, half-Sergio Leone-style cowboy, and evidently there are no more to follow in a desolate world that is of a parallel existence to our own. (This is only one of a few ideas I fully admit I am more or less stealing for my short story ‘Suicide Station’.) In the opening segment of this first novel, when Roland obliterates an entire town with a pair of guns, we get a sense of both the fantastical, over-the-top aspects that this whole saga shamelessly embraces, and the distant, forlorn nature of the protagonist himself. He can sling his guns all right, and evidently he’s okay doing it whenever he feels it’s needed. We are treated with only a glimpse of his main obsession, which is to find and reach the Dark Tower.

The entire series is a quest epic, and the tower is its center and its object, although the nature of the tower – what it is, what it precisely does – is shrouded in mystery throughout much of the story. King holds these ideas close to the vest, and it’s very hard to determine whether it’s because he intends for the reader to stay in the ‘dark’ for most of the journey, or if it’s more because he himself didn’t know exactly what the tower was. It’s probably something of both. Not knowing what the outcome of a story will be even as one writes it is nothing new, writers do this all the time. Giving the distinct impression that you aren’t aware of the story while you are writing it is something different. King barely straddles this line. I have had the distinct impression throughout the first four books that he was only vaguely aware of where it was all going, and was counting on his story-telling power and sheer verve to bring him through to the right conclusion. Whether this was the case or not, of course, only King would be able to say.

The bad news about writing the story this way is that it can meander and stray all over the place, and in many of the novels this is exactly what it seems to do. Wizard & Glass in particular, in my view, is largely hobbled with this malady. But at the same time there is an upside to letting one’s story-telling instinct take its course and not getting in its way. It unleashes the undiluted power of the imagination, and it can make for some wild twists and turns. If you plot your story too much it can seem well-hewn and gracefully constructed, like Rowling’s great wizarding tale, but it can also seem conventional and constricted by the same old rules. Stephen King, in this story and probably most others, cares nothing for the rules. I think the result, even among some of the shoddiness and the frivolity that sometimes infuses the narrative a little too much, allows for the emergence of some of his most interesting ideas. Ideas like a huge tower holding together all existence and a series of spoke-like beams hidden in the earth, leading to that center. An abandoned city with a monorail train with a mind of it’s own that happens to have gone insane. A mysterious mutant-figure named the Tick-Tock man. A group of glass balls, each a different color and hidden throughout King’s Mid-World (inspired by Tolkien) in various places, each with a soothsaying purpose, called the Wizard’s Rainbow. The concept of ka, a term which vaguely means ‘destiny’, which guides and binds together the inhabitants of Mid-World, much like the idea of The Force in George Lucas’ universe.

Letting his imagination run amok has also allowed King to introduce another interesting element to the saga, one that J.K. Rowling could never have equaled. In the creation of Mid-World and the quest for the tower, initially conceived before he had any readers or name recognition, King realized he had come up with a universe of his own into which he could tie in every last filament of his own forthcoming body of work. He created a patch of ground on which he could tell his stories his way, and he planted his literary flag there. This means that even as he went on to write all the various other novels and the hundreds of stories he would produce, in one sense it was all done in a context of his own creation. The King universe, for better or worse, was also all built around the Dark Tower. What this meant was that as he wrote each installment of the saga between the years of 1970 and 2004 he was able to weave in characters and settings and storylines from his other books. This is why one of King’s greatest villainous creations, Randall Flagg, best known for being the primary face of evil in his novel The Stand, can also be found in the Dark Tower universe. Another mysterious and dangerous creature called The Crimson King, which was featured in the novel Insomnia, is alluded to throughout the first four Dark Tower books. And Father Callahan, who was a pivotal figure in one of King’s best early novels, ‘Salem’s Lot, makes a prominent appearance in later volumes of the series.

I think these things are the qualities which combined make the strongest case for King’s saga. I am by no means declaring the Dark Tower series the winner. I found the novel Wizard & Glass to be a somewhat missed opportunity. It tells a very long back story, a romance, which explains something of how Roland got to be the way he is, but it takes up 80% of this critical fourth novel, and it moves incredibly slowly. The final portions of the novel are explosive, literally, but King’s penchant for too much exposition and hard-headed insistence on telling every last detail of every move of the characters in the flashback derails the pacing considerably, almost fatally. I can see many a reader getting too bogged down in Wizard & Glass to bother continuing. Yet by the time you reach the end you do know a good deal more about Roland and enough clues have been dropped in relation to the exhausting and bloody journey still ahead that the persistent reader will be compelled to venture further, if only to determine what the Dark Tower is, and what it really wants from Roland, or possibly from all of us.

These thoughts to be continued down the road, after I am able to finish reading all seven books of both of these remarkable storytelling accomplishments.